What Product Managers can Learn from Top Gun.

How OODA changed military and product strategy.

The F-14 fighter jet is an icon of the American Airforce during the Cold War. It’s a plane that defies physics, designed to allow for extreme manoeuvres, even at low speeds, and required some of the world’s most skilled pilots to handle its extraordinary power. The F-14’s other claim to fame is it’s staring role in the 1986 film Top Gun, where a young Tom Cruise demonstrated the F-14’s extraordinary dog fighting capabilities and also one of the more complex military theories to emerge from 20th Century.

The OODA (short for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act) loop was the brainchild of Air Force Colonel John Boyd and has been a basic concept for air-to-air combat situation management throughout the later 20th century. The main premise of OODA is that in a dog fight situation the pilot who can observe the variables, orient his aircraft, decide on the best course of action, and act rapidly on that decision first will be the pilot who wins the fight.

I believe the OODA loop isn’t just relevant to those of us in combat situations but can also be applied to product management in the modern enterprise or the latest startup. In both these environments product managers face the same challenge as fighter pilots, they must acquire data, turn data into insight, and then act on that insight. Fast decision-making and decisive action is an essential strategy for success.

“The OODA loop limbers up your organisation.” — Thomas M. Hout, Boston Consulting Group.

In 2007 on a bus making it’s way from Boston to New York, a young Drew Houston, now CEO of Dropbox, observed a problem that would change his life forever. “I was planning to get some work done on the journey but realised I forgot my thumb drive, I was so frustrated — really with myself because this kept happening. And I’m like, my God, I never want to have this problem again.” Drew recalls. His observation of a personal problem was the first step on the OODA loop but he didn’t stop there. He needed to orient himself to the problem, he began to research potential solutions and settled on an online file sharing service. Drew decided he needed a way to test his idea but unlike most software developers he didn’t start coding an MVP, he made a video. That simple act of making a video proved Drew’s idea and led to Dropbox gaining 75,000 customers overnight. By making a video to demonstrate his idea Drew had shortened the time between Observation and Action considerably, removing risk and enabling him and his team to learn if their observations were correct before writing a single line of code.

OODA can also be applied effectively at an organisation-wide level. The classic example of this is Toyota who designed their organisation to speed information, decisions, and materials through four interrelated cycles: product development, ordering, plant scheduling, and production. Self-organised, multifunctional teams at Toyota observed the market, developed products in response to that observation and could produce them quickly to satisfy this new found demand. This led to Toyota being able to react to changing market demands almost 50% faster than their competitors in Detroit.

I believe the OODA loop is becoming increasingly relevant in today’s organisations as markets become increasingly competitive and fast pace. As product managers, we must aim to make OODA loops smaller and faster. Technology and the availability of data is allowing us to shorten the observation phase, however, this is no longer a competitive advantage since most competitors have the ability to observe the same data. This leads me to believe orientating to the market, deciding the steps to take forward and actually taking them is where the gains are to be had. After all, data is worthless without proper interpretation and application.

Data and observation has been the revelation in product management over the past decade but it will be fast orientation and action which will be needed to succeed in the future.


Thanks for reading this far! If you liked my post lets continue the discussion in the comments or tweet me! I’d love to hear your point of view.

You may also like this post I wrote on teams…